Remembrance Day and Talking About War

With Remembrance Day coming up, it is a reminder of some of the best and worst in humanity.  We see heroes who fought in defence of those who needed it, but we also have to acknowledge the horror of war.  For children, the idea of war can be both fascinating and scary and when they start to learn about it, many families are not entirely sure how to cope with some of the questions that come from these innocent little mouths.

I remember when my daughter first heard the word, it was when my husband and I were discussing an episode of Downton Abbey which involved World War 1.  She just looked up, curious, and said, “What’s war?”

How do you answer that?  More so, how do you answer that in an age appropriate manner to a 4-year-old?  We looked at each other, each with that hopeful look you give your partner when you hope that s/he is able to pick up where you feel totally lost.  No luck on the other having the magic answer in our case.  So we went to our default: Honesty.  Not brutal honesty, but a brief lesson in what war really means, like large groups of people fighting each other sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for not so good reasons.  Of course this led to further questions about good guys, bad guys, do people die, why does it happen, and so on.  Children grasp far more than we give them credit for most of the time and often have questions that leave us adults as the ones who feel uncomfortable.  We answered all her questions as best we could and she seemed satisfied.

Then came the obsession.  For weeks thereafter, she was fascinated with war and wanted to play war, asked to watch videos of war, and just hear more about it.  This wasn’t a morbid fascination and I know many families struggle when they introduce a concept only to have their child seemingly become obsessed.  They worry that their minds have corrupted, that their innocence is lost.

Not so.

Of course it can happen that a child is given non-age-appropriate information about war that can have a negative effect, but in these cases parents see not an engagement with the topic, as one finds in play or asking to learn more about it, but a fear of it.  Nightmares happen, children start to show anxiety that something like it will happen again to them and those they love.  These are the signs we need to be aware of when we introduce concepts like war and the ones we need to be prepared to help them handle, especially if the topic comes up with another individual.

Play and interest is a child trying to grasp what s/he can and process it in a way that s/he understands.  If parents get nervous and try to shy away from any further discussion, they send a signal that the topic is one to be feared.  In the case of war, there’s no doubt that war is terrifying should a child have to live through it.  As our children age, I hope they can realize the seriousness and deference this topic deserves.  The topic itself, however, is not one to be feared and in fact we can create fear and anxiety where there is none by acting as if we need to fear even discussing such topics.  As with most things, what our children will imagine will be much worse than an age-appropriate explanation to their questions from us.

Parents also often worry about the child who seems to show too little seriousness surrounding this topic.  When war is being played and children are having fun doing so, we can question if we’ve done the right thing in how we’ve approached it.  After all, war is not fun.  But we sometimes forget that what we understand about war and what our children understand are vastly different and our children need time and space to develop the same respect for the topic that we have.  The starting stage for this respect may very well include fun play as our children just try to understand such a massive construct in the only way they know how.

This Remembrance Day know that it’s okay to talk to your children about war.  It’s necessary to highlight the very real reasons we need to remember those who fought and those who died.  Depending on the age of the child, it is an opportunity to talk about heroism, bravery, good and evil, sacrifice, and the importance of standing up for those who need us most, even when it’s scary.  If your child doesn’t respond as you think they should, remember that their understanding and processing is very different to your own and the best you can do is make sure you’re there to answer questions and calm any fears.

For age-appropriate learning materials on Remembrance Day, you can check out these items for grades 1 through 12.

By Tracy Cassels

November 09, 2015